Meet the people at the oldest business in Palatine

Hanging high up on a pegboard is a cow bell still in its dusty plastic wrap.

In another room is a rack full of seemingly every vacuum cleaner bag known to man. Two obsolete gumball machines, long since abandoned by a possibly deceased vendor, still sit in the front entrance.

Welcome to Zimmer Hardware in Palatine. The floors creak, the aisles are narrow, the fan hums, and there's even a resident ghost, according to the owner.

“I have a lot of stuff!” shouts Nancy Martino, owner of Zimmer Hardware since 1996, who claims she pretty much knows where everything is, as she combs the “Screw Room” helping a customer find — what else? — a screw.

Rich Foerster of Schaumburg has been coming to Zimmer for 21 years looking for odds and ends, and says no matter what it is, “Nancy's always got it.”

Another longtime customer, former teacher Sterling Mische of Palatine, has been coming to Zimmer since 1960.

Zimmer Hardware, originally owned by Albert Zimmer and his family from 1883 until 1974, is the oldest business in the village, according to the Palatine Historical Society. The Zimmer family sold it to two partners, Mike Laminitis and Dick Brum. Martino bought it from Laminitis in 1996, and 20 years later, everything looks pretty much the same.

Zimmer has had essentially only three owners over its 132-year history, which brings us to Lydia, Albert Zimmer's stepdaughter.

“There's a spirit that hangs out here,” Martino says. “At first I thought it was Zimmer trying to get me acquainted with the store, but it was a nurturing voice. Lydia was Zimmer's stepdaughter who ran the place in the 1920s and 30s, so I think I found my spirit.”

Martino had never done retail before. After working logistics in the computer industry, she grew tired of the travel and thought buying a hardware store would be an interesting thing to do.

Through a lot of trial and error, Martino taught herself the hardware business. Having done some contracting work with True Value Hardware, Martino already was partially familiar with the industry.

Hardware stores like Zimmer have become somewhat of an anachronism in a world dominated by big box retail, a throwback to the days of mom-and-pop corner grocery stores and TV repair shops.

“This is one of those things that you either love or you don't; you work a lot of hours and this becomes part of your life,” Martino says.

“It's the people, it's the community ... you're part of something that's bigger than your nuts and your bolts.”

  Nancy Martino, owner of Zimmer Hardware in Palatine, helps a customer with a screen for a door. Bob Chwedyk/
  Longtime customer and former teacher Sterling Mische of Palatine navigates the narrow aisles of Zimmer Hardware. Mische has been coming to Zimmer since 1960. Bob Chwedyk/
  Nancy Martino, owner of Zimmer Hardware in Palatine, hangs the Zimmer flag in front of the store, which has been in business since 1883. Bob Chwedyk/
  Nancy Martino, owner of Zimmer Hardware in Palatine, looks up from the basement. She has owned the business - the oldest in Palatine - since 1996. Bob Chwedyk/

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